What Matters: How Covid destroyed one small business

Almost nobody, as they brought their kids home from school or stopped eating out, thought this would last a full year. Now here we are.

There will be time for the rest of our lives to examine this world-changing event. For now, I’m ready to forget it for a while, without forgetting the more than 520,000 Americans who have died from Covid.

It must be possible to honor them and also wonder when the world they left will start to feel normal rather on dwelling on what we’ve been through.

CNN Business has a “Back to Normal” index along with Analytics, which says the US economy is operating at about 83% of where it was a year ago.

Each state has its own “back to normal” score. It looks like a red to blue US political map. The most back-to-normal, like South Dakota, Florida and Mississippi, eschewed restrictions. The least back to normal, with the exception of North Carolina, are all blue states. See them here.

What we have didn’t come cheap. What normalcy we have was bought with trillions of taxpayer dollars. Congress has pumped more than $4 trillion into the economy. That equaled multiple direct payments to taxpayers worth thousands of dollars for millions of Americans.

The budget deficit is now in the multiple trillions for 2020 and 2021.

Real normalcy will return slowly and in waves, with vaccines, full-time in-person schooling, travel and gatherings.

When will vaccines be readily available? President Joe Biden has promised every adult will be eligible for a vaccine by May. Read more here.

When will schools be open full time and for all kids? This is an unknown. There seems to be a good chance that many American schoolkids won’t be in school full time next September.

When will we stop wearing masks? We should see “a significant degree of normality by the end of 2021,” but face coverings could be recommended into 2022, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“You know, I think it is possible that that’s the case,” he told Dana Bash in February, adding, “and, again, it really depends on what you mean by normality.”

Normal gets to be very subjective. But grandparents are finally getting to hug their grandkids. Watch this video and bring Kleenex.

One business snuffed out by Covid

For a lot of Americans, getting back to normal is not possible, since the pandemic robbed them of loved ones and livelihoods.

We know from data that this pandemic has hurt some portions of society more than others. It’s struck low-wage workers and small businesses more than the rich and corporate America, and trillions in relief spending by the federal government hasn’t filled every gap.

One person who the pandemic hurt is Heather Stouffer, who closed her small business manufacturing frozen foods this month. I talked to Heather (full disclosure: She lives in my neighborhood and is a friend) about her experience and the difficult decision to close Mom Made Foods, the business she’d built over more than a decade.

The big idea

What Matters: What got you into the food business and what were you trying to do with Mom Made Foods?

Stouffer: I left the tech industry to start Mom Made at a local farmers market in 2006. I was, and am, a mom who cares deeply about children’s nutrition. I had been working full time, had my first child, and there was nothing in the market at that time I felt good about feeding my family when in a pinch for something quick, convenient and healthy. Mom Made was at the leading edge of the organic industry — pioneering healthy foods for kids in the frozen aisle. We offered kid-favorite foods made with healthy ingredients and no added colors, preservatives, etc. All of our foods were frozen, as freezing was our preservative.

Horrible pandemic timing

What Matters: What role did the pandemic play in your decision to shut down?

Stouffer: Heading into 2020, we had been working for more than two years on the development of our Lunchwich line. We were over-the-moon excited for the first production run — scheduled for the end of March. It was impossible to predict that Mom Made’s newest product, designed for children to bring as a school lunch, would launch at the very moment kids across the country stopped going to school.

In addition, like so many other businesses, the pandemic ground our supply

chain to a halt, and it continued to pose logistical hurdles. From a consumer

perspective, the pandemic severely impacted grocery shopping habits, making the launch of a new frozen food product line exceedingly difficult. Despite our fiercest efforts in response, the circumstances and impact from the pandemic were far beyond control for our small business.

The difficult decision to shut down

What Matters: What made you finally decide to shut down after years in business? Why not wait it out a little bit longer?

Stouffer: From the moment I decided to start Mom Made, I accepted it was going to be a challenge. Small businesses in grocery have to take on significant risk to compete against the multibillion-dollar food manufacturers, who have deep pockets for marketing and production as well as cushions against the unexpected. I couldn’t be prouder of what we achieved and how we’ve competed over the years, but the combination of everyday challenges, the pandemic and ripple effects continuing deep into 2021 were beyond our capacity to overcome.

The problem with government help

What Matters: I’ve written a lot in this newsletter about government aid for small businesses in particular. Was that aid not available or not enough to help? What should people know about how the government tries to help small business owners?

Stouffer: I ran the business at full speed and pursued all financial options in hopes to help save the business. Cash-flow planning is always tricky for a small business, but we were not able to rely on government aid as part of our plan. The government funding we received was not enough to help the Mom Made business with the extreme hurdles we faced.

It was also difficult to navigate the application process for government aid, and once we applied, there was little to no communication about the decision timeline or the amount of relief funding we were to be granted. For example, one of the loans we applied for just showed up in our bank account with no notice; there hadn’t been any information provided regarding whether we qualified, how much we’d receive or when we’d receive the funds prior to the deposit.

Supply chain, interrupted

What Matters: Early in the pandemic we all heard about supply chain issues. There was no flour on store shelves. There were no Clorox wipes. How was your supply chain affected and have those problems largely been solved?

Stouffer: The impact on our supply chain was extreme and across the board. I felt like I needed to wear a fireman’s hat the last year as I was constantly pulled in every direction to put out fires. As a small supplier, with every issue we were pushed to the bottom of the priority list because large suppliers always take priority.

For example, two out of three of our manufacturers suspended their operations for extended periods due to Covid, causing us major inventory issues and out-of-stocks. Our packaging printer had delays as their medicinal product clients moved to the top of the list. There were many periods where it was impossible to book a truck to transport our product or the time to deliver had to be extended because overall volumes shifted so dramatically. Appointments at warehouses were harder to secure or trucks got stuck waiting to deliver. All of these issues cause additional fees incurred and lead to domino effects.

Permanent changes

What Matters: Do you think the pandemic will lead to permanent changes in the way we buy, prepare and eat food?

Stouffer: Yes, without a doubt the pandemic changed how we cook, work and shop. Online grocery sales showed record growth. Once one converts to online grocery shopping, they are unlikely to change. Working from home enabled a huge increase in cooking at home, and many of us working from home will not return to an office full time in the future. Gosh, just by judging purely on the number of my friends who I’ve spoken with about a shortage of yeast or how to get sourdough starter or the new recipes they’ve made during the pandemic, cooking habits have dramatically changed. My kids have been in virtual school for a year now and have an hour break for lunch. They therefore have plenty of time to make their own lunches. Saving a few minutes in food preparation is less of an issue now than it was pre-pandemic.

Dealing with the hardest decision ever

What Matters: I’m sure going out of business is stressful. I know that living through this pandemic has been stressful. What are you doing to cope with this massive change to your life?

Stouffer: It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. There have been many tears shed. The grief involved in closing a business is very real. I’ve loved Mom Made like a third child. My kids have never known me as anything other than the founder of Mom Made. The impact from the decision ripples across our customers, our retailers, our distributors, our manufacturers, our suppliers, our investors, my family and me.

I often tell my kids that when something means a lot to you, you try your very best with every ounce of what you have to give. Then, you let it go and be at peace with the results. I’ve had to take my own advice, as I know in my heart of hearts I’ve given Mom Made every bit of what I have.

In the toughest of life’s challenges, your inner strength carries you. I have been so blessed with outstanding counsel from our board, love from my family, support from friends and, in my case, I have relied on my faith to also help carry me.

I have also made sure to make time for daily exercise, as it’s the most effective stress reliever for me.